Yesterday Death ran right past me. I don’t mean that metaphorically, though courtesy of my current mind state I am in the midst of one of those heightened-awareness-thus-metaphors-everywhere phases. In this case though, death was a solid object in the form of a young man in jogging shorts and shoes and machine-knit cap, this ensemble completed by a sports jersey stamped DEATH big and bold across the back.
I was in the car, heading into the drive-through of my stupid credit union, where momentarily a college girl with a Madonna headset would appear on a dark little TV screen and say, without looking at the camera, “So we are making a deposit today?” and I, forever annoyed by bank workers in general and my credit union’s stupid little TV screens in particular, would take the bait and say, “Actually I am making a deposit today.” But first, before all that, I got a load of death, jogging by, as if straight out of a Kids in the Hall skit.
I laughed. How can you not when death jogs by and keeps going?
I debated going for my phone, to snap Death’s picture. In the seconds that debate took, I think I thought about how I need to stop taking pictures of everything. But then I think I thought about how no, this time it really was so funny I just had to capture and share. And back and forth like that until I pulled on the phone charger and fished out the phone from its hiding spot and snapped an image so small as Death receded that possibly, even with this “proof,” no one would believe me anyway.
Death. Running away from me. Like my thoughts. Running away from me. Like a forty-hour argument compressed into ten seconds, debating something so small, giving it so much weight, like ten dental x-ray aprons heaped on top. This is your brain. This is your brain on PTSD. Welcome to my world and people, let me tell you bout it, it’s so much not fun. This Post Traumatic Stress Disorder bullshit, she is a fucking bitch from hell.
Forty-nine years ago, nearly to the day, I arrived on the planet. The first gift I was given was a very long French name by a man who was supposed to love me but who would spend the next forty-four years not loving me, often hating me, until he died and they put him in a box in the ground at which point I could finally, at least occasionally, begin to exhale.
I understand a little better— now that I have spent decades exploring my own demons and fragile-chemistry-included brain that came standard-equipped with very inconvenient albeit sometimes very exciting short-wiring— that there were problems there, in my father’s mind. And in the end, these manifested and presented undeniably in the form of Alzheimer’s, and not that variety you read about where some grizzly old curmudgeon morphs into a fluffy little kitten. But long, long before that, there were problems. Passed along to me. Taken out on me. Eighteen years until I got away.
You’re stupid. You’re going to hell. You’re awful. You’re going to hell. You’re worthless. You’re going to hell.
Legacy. Something is broken in my mind. This is less dramatic than it might sound at first. Think about it like this: If I tell you, or better yet if you hear behind my back, that I have a “mental illness,” then maybe this sounds exotic or worthy of pity or judgment or concern. Now imagine I tell you I have come down with a cold. Less exciting. Maybe you give me a little sympathy, a box of Kleenex, a pot of soup. Then we move along to the next topic. After a week or two I stop producing green snot and coughing into my elbow. All better til the next time.
Okay, the truth is that green snot is entirely more manageable than the stream of thoughts that comes pouring in when a trigger is pulled. But the catch is, and this I have learned from too much practice, is to treat an episode like a flu. Better yet, like food poisoning. Have you ever had food poisoning? Did you say to yourself and others, I’m going to die or I wish I were dead? You’re allowed to say that when your body is cramped over and leaking shit and puke everywhere. Perfectly acceptable Everyone knows the food poisoning will pass, you’ll be glad to be alive again.
Work with me here. PTSD is like food poisoning of the mind. Most of the time I have no symptoms. I am “in remission.” There are a few constant lingering traits that seem unshakeable, but they are relatively harmless, and with some redirection they can even be helpful. For instance, I am hyper-vigilant. A door opens, my head swings around to assess potential danger. I know what’s going on all the time, everywhere. This attention to detail is useful to a writer. Related: I know how to read people, to see if they are emitting rage, and if that rage will harm me. This attention to emotion is useful in cultivating compassion for others. I am so empathic at times that it hurts (emotional pun intended).
Also for instance— a little OCD. Okay, maybe more than a little. But we can do things with OCD. We can knit scarves and hats and sweaters and socks and mittens and handcuffs and leg warmers and the list goes on.
The exaggerated startle response is harder to reframe but I have come to look at it as an opportunity for my loved ones to show their love. My son and my partner will whistle or phone ahead to let me know they are crossing a room behind me even (especially) if they are just a few feet away. This let’s me know they understand I need warning. It let’s me know they love me and want to be part of my feeling safe. And it let’s me know that they know that my martial arts training might just land them a head punch if they don’t let me know. So there, that’s an upside.
Decembers are almost always hard. When I can, I leave the country. Something about being where I can’t speak the language makes the month less hard. Whereas something about being here, where I can hear everyone blather on about the holidays and plans to be with family, all this combined with the short days and stretching darkness? Well these are the fixings for a Perfect Storm. Because feeling unsafe is a trigger and I cannot think of a place I felt more reliably unsafe than as a child in my father’s house at Christmas. Terror. Pure terror. Year after year after year after year.
Get over it, people say. These people do not understand the basic mechanics of conditioned response.
The Seasonal Affective Disorder is bad enough. Darkness descends. Wide swings open the door of a parade of thoughts about how peaceful being dead must be. Strong is the urge to share these thoughts, but technically that is taboo and even a taboo buster likes me knows I better couch the description in, “This isn’t a cry for help.” And it’s not a cry for help. It is me saying, or trying to say, “Now here’s something weird. I have spent a bazillion hours working to heal, and there is a very rational part of my brain that knows how very much I love being alive, but godfuckingdammitmotherfucker, there is a gas leak in here that’s telling me I don’t love being alive. Does anybody else smell that?”
So I ask for help. Help shows up. I officially have so many tools in my mental health kit, and such a ridiculous number of friends, and so many practices to turn to— yoga, meditation, walking-induced endorphins, MDT (multiple dog therapy)— that I have come to navigate the SAD if not with aplomb then at least with a sort of wobbly grace.
But here’s where it got tricky in 2012. Some people I know did something they shouldn’t have. The shouldn’t have they did upset me in an understandable way. Unfortunately, it also upset me in a non-understandable way. An irrational way. To the uninitiated, we might identify this as “overreaction.” But my PTSD kin know there is another term.
|Just Happy to Be Here.|
Here, let us turn to my dog Dante for help understanding. Dante is a Labrador-polar-bear hybrid. He weighs maybe 120 and is cheerful as can be 97% of the time. I don’t know his back story. I got him from the pound when he was on death row. The story they told me was that he was seven, aggressive with cats, not housebroken, a constant barker. I got him home and he displayed the energy of a two-year-old, was afraid of the cat, so housebroken the other dogs started shitting outside regularly thanks to his role modeling, and he refused to bark for the first two months. (Not to mention we had to struggle mightily to get him to understand that sleeping on the furniture is mandatory.)
Henry, upon hearing that Dante was moments from death before I rescued him, and upon observing Dante’s near constant grin, gave Dante a motto: Just Happy to Be Here. It suits him perfectly.
But here’s the thing about Dante. The minute he hears thunder, he turns into a cartoon character. You know the cartoon I’m thinking of— when the gigantic guy sees a mouse and screams and leaps into the arms of the little guy? One thunder rumble and Dante comes undone, hurls himself on the bed, tries to curl up to pug puppy size, and trembles and pants. No amount of soothing helps. Technically he can see that here we are, we are safe, it’s all good. But on some cellular level he is tuned in to some place far away where the thunder is out to get him and there is no coming back soon. Gotta wait it out.
So it goes with the flashbacks. When the someones did the something that set me off, they did not set out to act with malice. They were just horsing around. What they did remains wrong. But my caught-in-the-crossfire response caught everyone off guard.
Just get over it seemed to be the consensus, at least to my suspicious mind. Ah, another trigger. To say, “I am hurt” and to be told, or perceive you are being told, “No you’re not.”
I could see the walls around me. A little voice said, “Look, we’re safe— we are, really.” But there was no silencing the thunder in my brain. The Thing was coming for me. I could feel it. It was out there. No escape.
I spent the better part of the last month in bed crying, in a fog waiting for the thunder’s echo to recede. You can’t rush a cold out the door, you can’t unpull a trigger. You also can’t – unless you’re Brian Wilson or someone with that kind of money— really just stay in bed indefinitely like that. So I would, as needed, suit up and show up, perform weddings, brush teeth, take whatever client meetings I couldn’t postpone. To the untrained eye I was just me. Waterworks carefully turned off as needed, faucets reopened to full blast as soon as possible.
There is a deep frustration that comes with PTSD and, I imagine, with any mental disorder that doesn’t totally obliterate our awareness. I know this thing inside and out. It bores me. I hate it. I am not entertained by it. I do not enjoy the attention it calls to me. I have studied long and hard to learn how to confine it as much as it can be confined. I do not invite it in. I strive to make boundaries clear and spaces safe to keep the storms at bay. In the past it has prompted agoraphobia. Now it just inspires a lot of introversion. The less you put yourself out there, the better the odds of avoiding the triggers. This is not mere theory. This is truth.
Sometimes, though, triggers come through the front door, the computer screen, the phone line. Sometimes you can hide but you cannot run.
The last time it got this bad was a long time ago. Six years in fact, when I was in a very bad marriage, part of cycle I’d started years before. PTSDers have a tendency to reinjure. Not consciously even. In that marriage I accidentally but near perfectly emulated my family of origin issues. The thunder rumbled. I fell apart, I wished I were dead. I cried for six months straight.
But even then there were the good parts. I learned about the miracle of modern medicine and its ability to ease the panic. I learned alternate modalities. I engaged in therapy so intense I came to refer to it as Emo Chemo. I got my shit together. I did not grow smug. When life twists your balls that hard, you don’t have to worry about smug knocking on the door. Ever.
In the midst of all that, I used to sit in the backyard and chain smoke and chain cry and all I could think about was what a shit my then-husband was and how much he hurt me. I wasn’t yet at the part where I understood how very much like that original hurter he was. I hadn’t yet come to clearly know that I wasn’t just afraid of the thunder in the here and now. I was answering to that distant thunder, booming from 40-odd dark years away.
Then one day, it was only for a few seconds, I heard something. A bird singing. This was, I swear, the most profound sound I ever heard. Fleeting, yes. But for that moment I was in the moment and I was aware that I was in the moment and this gave me so much joy. That was not an instant end to the pain, which took years to ebb, but it was a start.
I was thinking about birds this past week. At the craft store the other day, despite my 2013 resolution to avoid impulse buys, I just had to get Dante this robin red breast toy that, when squeezed, emits realistic birdsong. I stood in the store riveted by it, squeezing it again and again, remembering that moment in my backyard so many years before.
Then I got an email from my yoga teacher, a follow-up to an email from the day before telling me that Bob had died. Bob, whom I first met in yoga a dozen years ago, who used to drive me nuts the way he rushed in to claim “his space.” Bob whom I came to appreciate so much. Bob, who told us at the end of class a few months back that he had Stage IV cancer. Bob, whom I saw at a yoga party three weeks ago, who kept going to yoga through his pain and his treatments. And he said to me, who’d disappeared from class, “When are you coming back?” January I lied. Well, maybe not lied, but I didn’t know if that was true.
The follow up email included a Chinese proverb Bob loved: "Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a songbird will come."
Ha. The proverb is the songbird, Bob, can you hear me?
Occasional bouts of brutal, crippling depression and PTSD flashbacks notwithstanding, I’m stepping into the 50th year of my life tripping over an embarrassment of riches. Among these: semi-regular trips to the spa, where I am invited to spend personal quiet healing time in exchange for the classes I teach here. In addition to the amazing hot tub, I also meet amazing people. Toward that end, on the first of the year, when I had suited up and shown up and turned off the leaky eye faucet long enough to lead a session on the healing powers of journaling, especially during trauma, I just so happened to meet an attendee who is a psychiatrist specializing in trauma. He, in turn, shared with me a soon to be published work that contained clues for me.
The clues prompted epiphany, which was extra nice since we’re in the season of the Feast of the Epiphany. I shared the epiphany with Warren, who was, frankly, fucking exhausted from taking care of me. He connected with a particular suggestion in the paper. So the next time I started talking about the thunder, instead of saying to me, “Shhh, you know the thunder can’t get you,” which only serves to make it worse, he listened to the thunder with me. And when he listened to the thunder, I calmed down.
“Will you tell me I’m safe?” I asked.
He held me and said, “You’re as safe as the smallest nesting doll.”
And now, more tears, but the good kind.
And then—is this thing on? check, one, two, check… did you hear me when I said embarrassment of riches? And then I spirited myself away to the spa again to hole up and hot tub and lavender soak and smell aromatherapy and resume my yoga practice, thinking of my promise to Bob.
There were those metaphors I mentioned way back in the beginning. In the steam room I sat in a fog and I thought: Look at this—I am in a fog and I am in a fog! And then, the next day, swimming laps in a heated pool in the cold air, I saw steam rising and I thought: Look at this—the fog is lifting!
Of course there was a dream—aren’t there always dreams at moments like this? I dreamed, I think, that Warren was moving me to another house, but he hadn’t asked me, he just started packing us up to go. And I couldn’t find my phone. Or my glasses. Easy enough, right? Fear of loss of vision, loss of communication. The house, they say, represents the body. Is it time to move into something else? Is Warren here to help?
It is. He is. And I am reminded of a line from the Mark Strand poem Keeping Things Whole, which Henry’s dad introduced me to more than half our lifetimes ago, before Henry even. I move to keep things whole.
Dante is an old dog. He learned a new trick. He still fears the thunder but he no longer fears the couch, sprawls upon it pornographically, super chill, spread eagle, just happy to be here. There is more thunder for me, I know. But there are new tricks, too, I think. The fog lifts. Soon I will see them.
Meanwhile, Death runs past me cheerily, doesn’t even bother to look back, won’t even slow down for a picture. It’s all coming back to me: I am safe now. I am just happy to be here.